When Megan Drinan at ABC Books asked me if I would like to write the text for The ABC Book of Christmas, I knew it was a risk, because on traditional stories every reader has an opinion - let alone a traditional story from the Bible. If I got it wrong, people would denounce me for messing around with the source of their beliefs. Dangerous stuff! But I wanted to have a go.
I was also a bit afraid of being typecast. However unconventional, my previous book, God Is was obviously about God and the one before that, Tomorrow, although not religious was about our journey through life.
My fears seemed justified when the first bookseller I told said, 'And what's the book after that?' and the next one said, 'Is the next book going to be different?' Ah well, several books following had nothing to do with religion, so maybe the typecasting would be temporary.
I knew the story of the birth of Jesus, but I reread five or six versions of Matthew and Luke and then tried to forget them. I wanted to be able to retell the story in language that young listeners as well as readers would understand.
First problem, what to do with King Herod. Retellings for children often leave him out. I started that way, because the star of this anthology was going to be the collection of illustrations and I didn't have much room on the page to play with. But the travelling to Egypt and back didn't make sense without him. So he was in, but I tried to tone down his murderous response and relate it to the jealousy that even the smallest toddlers would recognise. They can hear about the true horror of his actions from someone else when they are ready.
Second, that word 'manger'. I argued that if we restored the sense of a feed box, or hay cradle to the story, then we would be renewing the symbolic ordinariness that is an important part of the meaning. Although the sense of Jesus feeding his people has indicated for some people the violence of Judaeo-Christian cultures, to me the simplicity of the great leader being a baby and eventually an executed victim, and in between a source of spiritual nourishment or nurture for his people, is powerful.
So 'feed box' it was, and to me the slight roughness was not disrespectful at all. However at the last minute someone got cold feet, it was changed back to 'manger' and by the time I was told it was too late to argue. Not that as the writer I had any power to influence the outcome anyway!
And there were 14 illustrators to think of too. If the publishers were right and 'feed box' would discourage many book buyers, then everyone's income would be affected. I know some readers have a romantic view of the book as art, but the book as rent-payer needs to be taken into account too, and those who refuse to do so perhaps have no such concern in their own lives.
I feel a bit disappointed that Christmas buyers apparently weren't ready for this tiny bit of realism, but The ABC Book of Christmas is still an absolutely beautiful book and I feel privileged to have been asked to write some words for the illustrators to work with.
Look out for it in September.
The illustrators are Gaye Chapman, Bettina Guthridge, Wayne Harris, Sally Heinrich, Ann James, Stephen Michael King, Caroline Magerl, Beth Norling, Cheryl Orsini, Sally Rippin, Greg Rogers, Judith Rossell, and Anna Walker. I wouldn't tell you my favourite, even if I could, but there are some wonderful surprises in there!